The scandalous nature of libel

By Romel Regalado Bagares

As a former journalist, I know intimately the terror of being made to face a criminal complaint that may eventually lead to a jail sentence: libel.

I was barely a month into my new job as a newspaperman in 1995  when I was slapped with a P5-million libel complaint before the Office of the Prosecutor in Pasay City. The complainant was a former Supreme Court justice, valedictorian of the illustrious Class of 1939 of the University of the Philippines College of Law and favored classmate to its most (in)famous alumnus  the late strongman Ferdinand Edralin  Marcos.

I had earlier reported on an entirely different complaint, one dealing with sexual harassment, filed with the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) against the good justice by a young woman who worked for him as a legal researcher. The good justice  – he was already 79 years old at that time –  denied it of course, and his denial came on strong in the form of a libel suit against me and the legal researcher.

My first reaction when I read the subpoena from the Office of the Prosecutor was panic: I was a 20-year-old cub reporter who was earning a measly sum of P5,500.00 a month as a news reporter.  All told, my assets consisted of no more than a few hundred books, most of them bought second-hand and therefore cheap,  a diploma from the state university,  and  youthful bravado that was thinning fast as I contemplated a bleak future in jail and penury.

I remember being received at his Makati City office by one of the newspaper’s lawyers, the well-known litigator Rogelio Vinluan, for an interview that lasted an hour. A young associate lawyer took down notes. “You barely look the part, “ Atty. Vinluan chuckled when he first saw me. But he quickly calmed my fears and told me not to worry.

Indeed, I was still wet behind the ears, as old hands used to say, and already, I was facing a big libel suit. To the credit of Atty. Vinluan’s  litigation prowess, the suit was eventually dismissed. A few years later, I would sit for the first time as a working student in a class on Evidence in the evening program of the UP College of Law,  with Atty. Vinluan as my professor. I don’t think he recognized me as a former client nor did I dare remind him of our former association. In any case, I passed his class.

Shortly after that, his law office would defend me in yet another libel case where I was sued for my reportage on a violent fraternity-related incident on campus that took the life of an innocent bystander – a journalism student who came from a very poor family and his family’s only hope for a better life.  The son of an influential family had been linked to the crime and I had duly reported on it. This time around, younger lawyers from Atty.  Vinluan’s firm  were assigned to defend me. Like the first one, the suit was dismissed  before it could even reach the courts.

I recall this part of my eight years working as a journalist  to bring home the point about criminal libel – how it seriously impairs a journalists’ work to ferret out the truth about a matter of public interest,  and how helpless a journalist could be if he or she is not supported by his or her media organization when sued for libel. In my case, my newspaper, The Philippine Star, did not abandon me but hired the best lawyers to defend me.

Unfortunately, for many Filipino journalists, especially those who work away from the center, a good defense lawyer for a libel case  is a luxury they cannot afford.

The Philippines, despite its democratic credentials,  has kept in its statute books criminal libel. It is a colonial legacy that time and again, powers-that-be have had no qualms deploying to stifle legitimate political dissent or any comment or reportage made in pursuit of the public interest.

As the American Bar Association‘s (ABA) Country Director Scott Ciment would say, criminal libel is an abhorrent practice that should have no place in any self-respecting democratic state “because it sends people to jail simply because of the words they say or write. ”

The Dutch Christian philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd would say that a state with a deepened understanding of justice will know better than punish an act of defamation with imprisonment,  or penalize those who speak the truth to power with a jail term.

One piece of good news is that the United Nations Human Rights Committee recently declared that the Revised Penal Code’s provisions penalizing libel is “incompatible with Article 19, paragraph three of the International Covenant on Civil Political Rights,” which pertains to the freedom of expression.

Recalling  its General Comment No. 34, the UN body stressed that defamations laws should not stifle freedom of expression. “Penal defamation laws should include defense of truth,” it said. “[In] comments about public figures, consideration should be given to avoiding penalties or otherwise rendering unlawful untrue statements that have been published in error but without  malice. In any event, a public interest in the subject matter of the criticism should be recognized as a defense. State parties should consider the decriminalization of libel.”

The UNHRC’s view was expressed in connection with a complaint filed with it by Davao City broadcast journalist Alexander Adonis, who spent two years in jail after he was convicted of libeling former Speaker of the House Prospero Nograles.

Adonis’s crime was reading and dramatizing over his popular radio program a news report that then Congressman Nograles was seen running naked in the corridors of a hotel in the city after he was caught in bed by the husband of the woman who was said to the legislator’s mistress. The incident entered the collective memory of the citizens of Davao City as the “Burlesque King” scandal.

After serving two years in prison, with the legal assistance provide by the Center for International Law,  Adonis questioned, among other things,  whether criminal libel is compatible with the freedom of expression protected  under Art 19 of the ICCPR, to which the Philippines is a state party.

And the UNHRC‘s answer is a resounding no.

The UNHRC is a treaty monitoring body created under an optional protocol to the ICCPR with the power to declare that a State party to the Convention is in breach of its obligations under the covenant.

In the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), only the Philippines signed up to the individual complaint mechanism that allows its citizens to file directly with the UNHRC  complaints for violations of their human rights.

While it is true that a UNHRC view is legally non-binding on an erring state, it carries persuasive weight that such a state cannot readily discount, not to mention the follow-up mechanism in the UN system  that repeatedly reminds the state of its continuing breach of obligations.

In the context of Philippine experience, it is yet the most powerful condemnation by an international body of the truly scandalous nature of criminal libel: of how, all too often, those in power hold on to it by suppressing those who dare to speak truth to power,  using their most readily available tool – a libel complaint.*

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An earlier version of this  essay first appeared in my column for the Iloilo City-based The News Today.

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Filed under Free Expression, Libel

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